89: Great Plains Skink
Did you know that the practice of self-amputation to escape an enemy is called "autotomy"?
I write to you from Arapahoe, Ute, and Cheyenne land. I am interested in learning about the different animals that live in the place where I was born. Before we start with today’s animal, I want to emphasize that biological classification as understood by western society has its roots in racism, sexism, and transphobia – here’s a good explainer about why.
The Great Plains Skink (Plestiodon obsoletus) led me to wonder… what makes a skink a skink? Turns out they are a diverse family of lizards containing over 1500 species, and their common trait is just… super short legs. Like T-rex arm style legs. The Great Plains Skink, which lives in eastern Colorado, especially southeastern Colorado, is also characterized by its beautiful coloration when juvenile (click here to see it – that website will not let me embed the photo but it is worth a look!).
They can be over a foot long (making them one of the largest North American skinks) and live near water in the open plains and eastern foothills that characterize this part of Colorado. A good place to see them is near irrigation ditches. The reason for their color scheme relates to being part of the genus Plestiodon: all of these skinks use the conspicuous coloration of their tails to draw the eye of predators, who then grab a tail that snaps right off. The rest of the skink can then scurry away, taking cover under a rock or in a burrow, while the predator regards the squirming tail still in its grasp. When the skink regrows its tail, it will have cartilage instead of vertebrae, and the tail will be a different color than it was before. Interestingly, while most other species of Plestiodon are found in North America, a single species is Asian, suggesting some kind of interesting journey.